Crandall Canyon, UT (Courtesy of JP Shooter/Flickr)
Investigations of the latest coal mining tragedy are raising troubling questions, not just about the company in question but also about the top government agency charged with mine safety. Critics say lax enforcement is linked to a spike in coal mining deaths. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.
CURWOOD: Six Utah coal miners and three people trying to rescue them were killed back in August, but in some respects the story is just beginning. The tragedy is sparking a call for a top-to-bottom review of mine safety and already congressional investigators are saying there are serious flaws in the procedures of both the mining companies and the federal agency that is supposed to keep mines safe. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has the latest in our series, “Generating Controversy: the Changing Climate of Coal.”
YOUNG: Wendy Black remembers there was a meteor shower the last night of her husband’s life. They’d been having long talks at night because, for the first time in 24 years as a miner, Dale Black was scared of the mine.
BLACK: I have never known my husband to be afraid to go to work but the last part of his life he was. While we were getting ready to go to bed he said that they’d been having big enough bounces at the mine that they were registering on the Richter scale. This was the night before the initial collapse.
BLACK: Like: ‘who was in charge at the time of the rescue? Who approved of this mining plan and who was to oversee this plan and that it was being followed correctly?’
MURRAY: Albert Gore is a shaman of global goofiness and we’d better not be listening to him.
YOUNG: Murray Energy Corp. operates mines in five states, making it the country’s 12th-largest coal producer. But campaign finance records show Murray energy is the industry’s third-biggest political donor. Notes from a 2002 meeting with mine safety inspectors show he is not shy about mentioning those political connections. The notes quote him threatening to have mine inspectors fired, and bragging about his connections to Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao is Secretary of Labor, the department that contains the mine safety agency. According to the notes, Murray said: ‘McConnell calls me one of the finest men in America and last I checked he was sleeping with your boss.’ This August, as the rescue effort dragged on at his Crandall Canyon mine, Murray was a frequent media presence.
MURRAY: This is the first major accident I’ve ever had in one of my coal mines! In 20 years! And this was caused by an earthquake! It was a natural disaster: an earthquake.
YOUNG: Safety records show two miners have died in other Murray mines in the past ten years. The Crandall Canyon miners were using a practice known as pillar removal and retreat mining. It’s a common but hazardous practice, especially so in deep mines like the one in Utah, because geologic pressures are so great. Safety experts who viewed the mining plan after the accident say it was seriously flawed.
FERRITER: And I looked at it and I said, ‘my lord, what are these people doing?’
YOUNG: That’s Bob Ferriter, who directs the safety program at the Colorado school of mines. He previously worked for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, known as ‘MSHA’ for short. A computer analysis done after the accident confirmed what Ferriter saw in the plan: great stress on the remaining pillars. And Ferriter says safety concerns forced the mine’s previous owners to shut down a section. He says those should have been red flags for the safety agency.
FERRITER: And MSHA said, ‘oh yeah, that’s okay,’ which totally surprises me. Somebody is going to have to look deeply inside of MSHA and find out what is going on.
YOUNG: Some members of Congress promise to do just that. They’re disturbed by the recent spike in mining deaths_71 in less than two years. West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd says Congress approved extra money specifically for MSHA to hire more inspectors. But since July two miners died in mines that had not been inspected as law requires. The agency said it was too short of staff.
BYRD: It is infuriating to watch MSHA continue a tepid, disjointed approach to mine safety. What the hell does it take to shake up that agency? What the hell is the problem at MSHA? It’s no secret . . .
YOUNG: Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter says MSHA has shifted away from strict enforcement in favor of something called ‘compliance assistance.’
SPECTER: So we’re really looking at a situation as to whether we have a license to ignore the law.
YOUNG: Mine Safety and Health Director Richard Stickler defended the agency’s enforcement record. He’s ordered a review of roof control plans for other deep mines doing pillar removal mining. And as for questions about the approval of the Crandall Canyon mine plan:
STICKLER: Our accident investigation team will go through a full analysis of the computer models and the review process and in due course they will answer that question.
YOUNG: Stickler says Labor Secretary Chao has also appointed an independent panel to investigate MSHA’s actions. But critics point out that the ‘independent panel’ consists of two of the agencies former employees. Wanda Black says it does not sound like the way to get answers about why her husband died.
BLACK: Now explain something to me: how do you truthfully investigate yourself? MSHA has one job: mine safety and health administration. It would have taken just one MSHA official doing his job to have saved my husband’s life. Please at least have one person with enough backbone to say, ‘no more.’
YOUNG: For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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